Ontological and ethical implications of cell factories

Project: PhD

Project Details


The rapidly emerging field of synthetic biology is bringing forth novel entities, like engineered micro-organisms, cultured meat, artificial cells. These entities are leaving the laboratory and are entering society in a variety of applications ranging from food, drugs, materials, to fuel. Synthetic biology products are believed to offer sustainable solutions (Nielsen et al. 2014) and answer to industrial production problems as building blocks of the bio-based economy (Tsuge et al. 2016). As disruptive technology, it disrupts sectors and practices in multiple domains, but also ontologies, concepts and values (Brey et al. 2019). Because these novel entities show characteristics of both machines and organisms, often framed as ‘artefactual organisms’ (Holm 2012), ‘synthetic organisms’ or ‘living machines’ (Deplazes & Huppenbauer 2009), they can be understood as hybrids. They are neither purely natural beings, nor purely artificial (Holy-Luckzaj and Blok 2019). By definition, they disrupt existing conceptual distinctions, like natural – artificial, organism – machine, alive – lifeless, industrial – ecological; distinctions that are heavily engraved in our thinking, but that no longer help us understand these technological novelties. How to understand hybrids? This research aims to reflect on the ontological and ethical status of hybrids stemming from synthetic biology. To contribute to the debate on hybrids in philosophy of technology, i) we critically assess ontological and ethical implications of dominant dualistic and industrial conceptualizations and ii) propose to conceptualize hybrids outside the machine framing by engaging with the metabolic system of hybrids. By engaging with accounts of metabolism in philosophy of biology we move beyond the limited categories and engage with the ecological advantages of hybrids.
Effective start/end date1/09/20 → …


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